Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov was born in St. Petersburg on November 25, 1717. Of noble descent, Sumarokov was the son of a St. Petersburg military man who was reared in the tradition of the Petrine epoch, with an acute consciousness of the family’s high social standing and a strong desire to maintain it. Being a sufficiently wealthy nobleman of the old order, Sumarokov’s father owned six estates with approximately 1,670 serfs; he eventually transferred from active military duty to St. Petersburg, where he held a prominent place in civilian life.
At the age of fourteen, young Sumarokov, along with other children of high-ranking nobility, entered the then recently opened school for the Gentlemen’s Cadet Corps of the Land Forces in St. Petersburg. At this academy, he received a diverse education that included the French classics. Of great significance for Sumarokov’s future literary career as a dramatist was his participation in and enthusiastic support of the amateur theatrical interludes, performed by pupils of the Cadet Corps for audiences from the royal court. For these occasions, Sumarokov, along with other talented poets and budding actors, composed poetry and dramatic pieces, imitating the models of contemporary French poetry to which they had been introduced. As novices, they all (including Sumarokov) followed the working rules of the newly emerging Russian classicism, first developed by Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky, who was at that time a leading writer and theoretician, enjoying great popularity, and with whom Sumarokov was later to quarrel.
Although Sumarokov wrote verses and tragedies while at the Cadet School, he did not immediately embark on a full-fledged career as a writer and dramatist on completion of his education. At that time, there was in Russia’s capital no theater specifically for Russian playwrights and Russian actors; while theatrical performances were the chief source of entertainment for the court during the reign of Anna Ivanovna (1730-1740), these performances usually consisted of Italian, French, and German plays, and ballets and operas performed by dramatic companies from abroad in a room equipped for the theater in the newly built Winter Palace. Given such limitations, it is not surprising that Sumarokov first chose to pursue a military career. In 1740, when Sumarokov finished the Corps, he was graduated as an adjutant to the vice counselor, Count M. G. Golovkin, who had become one of the most eminent magnates by the end of the reign of Anne I. Following Golovkin’s death, coinciding with the ascension to the throne of Elizabeth Petrovna (1741), Sumarokov’s fate hardly changed, as he soon became an adjutant to Elizabeth’s favorite, A. G. Razumovskiy, and served in that capacity for more than a decade.
Carrying on her father’s keen interest in the theater, Empress Elizabeth (Peter the Great’s daughter) forced the members of her court to attend theatrical events. A successful performance of Sumarokov’s first tragedy, Khorev, proved to be a turning point in his life, drawing the favorable attention and admiration of the empress herself and firmly establishing his reputation as a dramatist. In 1756, this notable patroness of the theater sent an official decree to the senate, announcing the establishment of a Russian theater for the performance of tragedies and comedies in the Golovinskiy stone house on Vasilevskiy Island near the Cadet House. Sumarokov, who by then had already produced three more tragedies (including Gamlet), was appointed the director of this new theater’s first company, consisting exclusively of Russian actors, brought to St. Petersburg by Elizabeth I from Jaroslav and headed by the famous Russian merchant actor, Fyodor Grigorievich Volkov.
From the onset, Sumarokov’s career as theater director was tenuous. The initial assistance allocated for the management of the theater was far from sufficient, threatening the company with financial disaster. Sumarokov was continually forced to lodge complaints about the lack of funds. Only after great difficulties did he finally succeed in having the theater come under the financial protectorate of the court. As a result, the Russian theater found itself in a position of submission to court control. Indeed, the management of the theater fell into the hands of the imperial procurator, a German by the name of K. Sivers, who was indifferent to its fate. A writer and dramatist of high integrity, Sumarokov could not help but be greatly incensed at this bureaucratic interference, and as a sign of protest, he offered his resignation, which, in 1761, was unceremoniously accepted. From this date, Sumarokov had no direct relation to the theater’s management but was allowed to continue his association with the company in the capacity of playwright. In spite of his quarrelsome, somewhat overbearing personality, his service to the struggling theater was enormous: It was largely because of his efforts in the face of court opposition that the first Russian theater survived.
Soon after his retirement as theater director, Sumarokov migrated to Moscow, where he occupied himself almost solely with literary activity, writing his last two tragedies, Dimitri the Imposter and Mstislav. This activity also included a zealous correspondence directed at Catherine II (1762-1796), whose ear he allegedly deafened with complaints about excessive censorship and the lack of official support for the theater. Because of his annoying behavior and sometimes excessive idealism, he soon lost favor with the Empress. Catherine II eventually commanded him to cease writing to her.
As noted above, Sumarokov was generally considered to be an irascible and disagreeable man whose excessive egotism caused him to quarrel constantly with many of his rivals, Trediakovskiy and Lomonosov in particular. He even quarreled with the governor of Moscow, P. S. Saltykov, and ultimately died in abject poverty, a neglected and rejected man.